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Children are less active – is it bad news for their academic performance?

Children are less active – is it bad news for their academic performance?

4 min read
  • The science of learning

On average, the NHS recommends young people aged 5 to 18 to get at least 60 minutes of exercise per day. However, a recent survey has found a 40% drop in the number of children meeting this requirement.

This is worrying enough when we think about children’s health – but could this also harm their academic performance? What strategies can we use to encourage students to exercise more often?

What did the survey find?

Public Health England (PHE) and Disney teamed up to look at attitudes towards physical activity in over 1,000 children aged 5 to 11 and their parents. They found that:

  • 1 in 5 children start primary school overweight or obese. This increases to 1 in 3 by the time they leave primary school.
  • Only 23% of boys and 20% of girls currently meet the national recommended amount of physical activity.

Not having enough exercise can lead to many physical problems, but what effect does it have on students’ academic performance?

What does too little exercise do to students?


previous study that looked at the difference in memory between more physically active and less physically active children found that those who were less active performed worse on memory tasks.

Using an MRI scanner, the researchers also found that the area of the brain largely associated with memory, the hippocampus, was smaller in volume for less active children. Therefore, when children are less active, it could take them longer to remember information and may have a negative impact on their academic performance.


Even a small amount of exercise can positively affect student’s concentration. Previous researchers have found that students who took part in 5-10 minutes of stretch exercises twice a day showed greater concentration in their lessons. Currently, as students are getting less exercise, their concentration maybe worse and therefore, they may gain less from each lesson. In the long term, this can negatively impact their academic performance, making it harder for them to reach their full potential.

To find out more about how to improve your concentration, read out blog, “How to improve concentration.”


Excessive stress in childhood can negatively affect a way the child thinks, acts and feels – and physical activity is a great way to reduce this stress. Getting less exercise could lead students to experience stress more often, causing them to perform worse during stressful occasions such as exam conditions.

Find out more about the impact a simple stroll can have on stress levels on our blog “The benefits of taking a short walk”.

Cognitive functioning

Regular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance. In a recent study, researchers found that individuals who engaged in regular physical activity performed better in cognitive tests, compared to those who did not exercise. Therefore, less active students may miss out on these benefits and consequently could perform less well in class.

For more facts about how exercise can improve brain power, read our blog, “8 ways exercising boosts your brain power.”

Help your students reach their full potential with our engaging student workshops. Study skills, motivation, resilience, and more…

How can you encourage your students to exercise more?

To overcome these negative impacts, here are a few strategies that can encourage your students to meet the recommended 60 minutes of exercise per day.

10-minute shake ups programme

You can find a free 10-Minute Shake Ups programme on the NHS website, inspired by different Marvel, Pixar and Disney characters. Each activity is 10 minutes long and the recommendations and steps on how to play it are clearly explained. It also has both indoor and outdoor options.

So far, this programme has helped over a million children get more active. Within the survey, they also found that 93% of children enjoyed being active, meaning that this programme is an easy and quick way to ensure that children get more exercise.

Expose students to a wide range of sports activities

The survey also found that 48% of students were more motivated to exercise when they had activities they liked to choose from. Therefore, by having a larger variety of activities that students can do, it can make them more interested and motivated to exercise. This is also supported by a report which found that having a wider variety of activities resulted in young people being more physically active on a regular basis.

Within the report, they also found that free play, a stronger focus on games and a wide range of new experiences all helped motivate inactive children to participate more often. For example, you could include creative dance or catching games along with the more traditional school sports games.

Promote active travel

Another recommendation that came out of the report was to promote active travel. Within schools, interventions that encourage active travel plans to and from schools can help children stay fit and healthy. Different programmes were found to be successful, including rewarding children who walk to school at least once a week with a badge.

Final thoughts

Currently, a surprising number of children are not achieving their recommended level of physical activity. This not only results in many physical problems but can also affect student’s academic performance. By encouraging students to do small changes, including 10-minute exercise sessions, it can help them reach their recommended 60 minutes of exercise, which would also help improve their academic performance.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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